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Threat of 'Dirty Bomb' Growing, Officials Say

Radioactive material is common and often not secured. Al Qaeda is said to be planning an attack.

May 09, 2004|Douglas Frantz | Times Staff Writer

VIENNA — Concerns are growing that Al Qaeda or a related group could detonate a "dirty bomb" that would spew radioactive fallout across an American or European city, according to intelligence analysts, diplomats and independent nuclear experts.

Although safeguards protecting nuclear weapons and their components have improved, experts said the radioactive materials that wrap around conventional explosives to create a contaminating bomb remained available worldwide -- and were often stored in non-secure locations.

Detonating a dirty bomb would not cause the death and devastation wrought by a nuclear weapon, but officials and counter-terrorism experts predicted that it would result in some fatalities, radiation sickness, mass panic and enormous economic damage.

Intelligence agencies have reported no reliable, specific threats involving dirty bombs or nuclear weapons, but senior U.S. and European officials and outside experts said several factors had heightened fears in recent weeks.

They said concerns were focused on three Al Qaeda operatives who led experiments involving dirty bombs and chemical weapons and on widely held suspicions that a special wing of the terrorist network was planning a spectacular attack.

They also said that chatter justifying the use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. had increased on radical Islamic websites as the occupation of Iraq stretches into its second year.

One focus of anxiety is the Athens Olympic Games in August. Recent security exercises there concentrated on mock attacks involving a dirty bomb, a chemical explosion and a hijacked jetliner.

Another potential target is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit scheduled for June in Istanbul, Turkey, which will be attended by President Bush. The threat was underlined by Turkey's disclosure Monday that it had arrested members of a group linked to Al Qaeda who reportedly planned to bomb the summit.

The threat of attack is great enough that a senior European intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it is "not a matter of if there is a nuclear-related attack by Al Qaeda, but when it occurs."

The warning echoed remarks made last June by Eliza Manningham-Buller, director of Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5. She said renegade scientists have aided Al Qaeda's efforts to develop chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, sometimes referred to as CBRN.

"Sadly, given the widespread proliferation of the technical knowledge to construct these weapons, it will only be a matter of time before a crude version of a CBRN attack is launched at a major Western city and only a matter of time before that crude version becomes something more sophisticated," she told a London think tank.

Experts inside and outside government said sophisticated extremists have the ability to plan and execute the detonation of a dirty bomb. They had no answer for why a dirty bomb has not been unleashed.

"I'm very surprised that a radiological device hasn't gone off," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. "There is a bigger puzzle -- why no Al Qaeda attacks since Sept. 11 in the U.S.?"

The European intelligence official said planning for a large-scale attack has suffered setbacks with the arrests of numerous Al Qaeda operatives. But, he added, "the division is still focused on spectaculars, and they take three or four years to plan and execute."

U.S. intelligence has long known that Al Qaeda coveted a nuclear weapon, but there is no evidence that it has succeeded in getting one.

"We won't know if Al Qaeda has its hands on this kind of material until it is too late," said M.J. Gohel, head of the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London.

Building a dirty bomb is far easier, and the terrorist network's attempts to do so have been documented through evidence uncovered in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Three men identified as Al Qaeda's weapons of mass destruction committee would likely plan the attack, said two European intelligence officials and independent experts.

The committee leader is Midhat Mursi, an Egyptian chemical engineer also known as Abu Khabab. Officials said he is regarded as Al Qaeda's master bomb builder and is one of the group's most-wanted fugitives -- although there have been unconfirmed reports that Mursi is in U.S. custody.

A second member is Assadalah Abdul Rahman, a son of Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The son ran a camp near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, that provided training in chemical weapons.

The third was identified as Abu Bashir Yemeni, who also worked in the Afghan training camps and at a house in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that authorities suspect was the committee's headquarters.

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